History of Manitoba

Rupert's Land Hudson's Bay Company Winnipeg
When Canada was formed in 1867 its provinces were a relatively narrow strip in the southeast, with vast territories in the interior. It grew by adding British Columbia in 1871, P.E.I. in 1873, the British Arctic Islands in 1880, and Newfoundland in 1949; meanwhile, its provinces grew both in size and number at the expense of its territories.
Canadian provinces 1867–2003

Manitoba is one of Canada's ten provinces, and the easternmost of the Prairie Provinces. A traditional territory of several First Nations, European fur traders first arrived in what is now Manitoba during the late 17th century, with the French under La Vérendrye setting up several trading post forts in the area. In 1670, Britain declared sovereignty over the watershed of Hudson's Bay, making it part of Rupert's Land under the authority of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1763, New France was dissolved, and Rupert's Land expanded to include where the French forts had been. In 1811, Lord Selkirk established the first colony in Rupert's Land of Assiniboia, or the Red River Colony, around the Red River in Rupert's Land. In 1818, Britain and the United States agreed to establish the 49th parallel as the official border and assign that portion of Rupert's Land south of the parallel to the United States. After Britain transferred Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory to the new country of Canada in 1870, the Government of Canada established the Province of Manitoba on a portion of the transferred territory that included the Red River Colony. Canada became responsible for the settlement of aboriginal title to the lands and entered into treaties with several First Nations. Manitoba is the first province created from the Territories and was subsequently expanded in 1881 and 1912 to its present boundaries. The economy was long based on farming, centering on grains, cattle and hay. The economy is now diversified due to urbanization.

Early history

Red River cart train
Métis and Red River carts

The geographical area of modern-day Manitoba was inhabited by the First Nations people shortly after the last ice age glaciers retreated in the southwest approximately 10,000 years ago; the first exposed land was the Turtle Mountain area.[1] The first humans in southern Manitoba left behind pottery shards, spear and arrow heads, copper, petroforms, pictographs, fish and animal bones, and signs of agriculture along the Red River near Lockport, Manitoba, where corn and other seed crops were planted.[2]

Eventually there were aboriginal settlements of Ojibwa, Cree, Dene, Sioux, Mandan, and Assiniboine peoples, along with other tribes that entered the area to trade. There were many land trails made as a part of a larger native trading network on both land and water. The Whiteshell Provincial Park region along the Winnipeg River has many old petroforms and may have been a trading centre, or even a place of learning and sharing of knowledge for over 2000 years. The cowry shells and copper are proof of what was traded as a part of a large trading network to the oceans, and to the larger southern native civilizations along the Mississippi and in the south and southwest.

In Northern Manitoba there are areas that were mined for quartz to make arrow heads. For thousands of years there have been humans living in this region, and there are many clues about their ways of life. Ongoing research will be needed to uncover many more artifacts for a more detailed understanding of past peoples and cultures in the Province.


The execution of Thomas Scott
The former Manitoba Coat of arms

Henry Hudson, in 1611, was one of the first Europeans to sail into what is now known as Hudson Bay.[3] The first European to reach what is now northern Manitoba was Sir Thomas Button in 1612, who named the Nelson River. Button was a member of the "Company of the Merchants Discoverers of the North-West Passage" and he hoped to find a trade route to China.[4] Henry Kelsey was the first European to travel from Hudson Bay to the prairies, reporting the bison and grizzly bears that he saw. Kelsey went as far as present day Saskatchewan. The Hudson's Bay Company traded with native fur traders that canoed far and wide along the many rivers of present-day Manitoba. Rupert's Land was the first name given to the area by Europeans, encompassing the Hudson Bay watershed. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, visited the Red River Valley in the 1730s as part of opening the area for French exploration and exploitation.[5] As French explorers entered the area, a Montreal-based company, the North West Company, began trading with the Métis.

When the British ship Nonsuch sailed into Hudson Bay in 1668–1669, she was the first fur trading vessel to reach the area; that voyage led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company, to which the British government gave absolute control of the entire Hudson Bay watershed. This watershed was named Rupert's Land, after Prince Rupert, who helped to subsidize the Hudson's Bay Company.[6] York Factory was founded in 1684 after the original fort of the Hudson's Bay Company, Fort Nelson (built in 1682), was destroyed by rival French traders.[7] Fur trading forts were built by both the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company along the many rivers and lakes, and there was often fierce competition with each other in more southern areas.

There are a few possible sources for the name "Manitoba". The more likely is that it comes from Cree or Ojibwe and means "strait of the Manitou (spirit)". It may also be from the Assiniboine for "Lake of the Prairie".[8]

British territory

Great Britain secured the territory in 1763 as a result of their victory over France in the Seven Years' War (also known as the French and Indian War; 1754–1763); the territory at the time included Rupert's Land, which incorporated the entire Hudson Bay watershed. Most rivers and water in Manitoba eventually flow north, not south or east as is commonly assumed, and empty into Hudson Bay. The Hudson's Bay Archives is located within Winnipeg, Manitoba, and preserves the rich history of the fur trading era that occurred along the major water routes of the Rupert's Land area.

The founding of the first agricultural community and settlements in 1812 by Lord Selkirk, north of the area which is now downtown Winnipeg, resulted in conflict between British colonists and the Métis.[9] Twenty colonists, including the governor, and one Métis were killed in the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.[10] Many fur trading forts were also attacked by each side over the many years.

Province of Manitoba

Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at York Factory, Manitoba. (1853)
Wood Lake School, 1896, Manitoba

Lake Manitoba was named by the Cree, Ojibway, and Assiniboine before the land area to the south was named. The lake was named after the word Manitou, meaning spirit, but there is some mystery about the exact original words and their meanings. Thomas Spence was the first to suggest that a Republic of Manitobah be formed just south of Lake Manitoba.[11] Louis Riel and others made a similar suggestion some years later. Rupert's Land was ceded to Canada in 1869 and incorporated into the Northwest Territories. The Métis of the Red River valley, seeing their concerns ignored by the new authority, launched the Red River Rebellion under Louis Riel, and established a provisional government that named the area as Manitoba. Negotiations between the provisional government and the Canadian government resulted in the passage of the Manitoba Act which created the Province of Manitoba and provided for its entry into Confederation in 1870.[12] Louis Riel was pursued by British army officer Garnet Wolseley because of the rebellion, and Riel fled into exile.[13]

The new Provincial government was controlled by Anglo Canadians. The agreement for the establishment of the Province had included guarantees that the Métis would receive grants of land and that their existing unofficial landholdings would be recognized. These guarantees were largely ignored. Instead, land went to Anglo settlers now coming in from Ontario. Facing this discrimination, the Métis moved in large numbers to what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta.[12]

The original province of Manitoba was a square 1/18 of its current size, and was known as the "postage stamp province".[14] It was bounded by the 49th parallel (US border) at the south, 96° longitude at the east, 99° longitude at the west, and 50° 30' at the north.[15] Its borders were expanded in 1881, taking land from the Northwest Territories and the District of Keewatin, but Ontario claimed a large portion of the Keewatin land; the disputed portion was awarded to Ontario in 1889. Manitoba grew to its current size in 1912, absorbing land from the Northwest Territories to reach 60°N, uniform with the northern reach of its western neighbours Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.[14]

In 1874 and 1876, two plots of land in southern Manitoba, the East Reserve and West Reserve, were set aside for Russian Mennonite settlement. In the years that followed, thousands of Mennonites immigrated to the area, then representing a significant percentage of the province's population. In 1875, a group of Icelandic immigrants settled in Gimli, on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, founding the community of New Iceland. This was the largest settlement of Icelanders outside of that country.

Numbered Treaties were signed in the late 19th century with the chiefs of various First Nations that lived in the area. These treaties made specific promises of land for every family. As a result, a reserve system was established under the jurisdiction of the Government of Canada.[16] The prescribed amount of land promised to the native peoples was not always given; this led to efforts by aboriginal groups to assert rights to the land through aboriginal land claims, many of which are still ongoing.[17]

Manitoba Schools Question

The Manitoba Schools Question showed the deep divergence of cultural values in the territory and became an issue of national importance. The Catholic Franco-Manitobains had been guaranteed a state-supported separate school system in the original constitution of Manitoba, such that their children would be taught in French. However, a grassroots political movement among English Protestants from 1888 to 1890 demanded the end of French schools. In 1890, the Manitoba legislature passed a law removing funding for French Catholic schools.[18] The French Catholic minority asked the federal government for support; however, the Orange Order and other anti-Catholic forces mobilized nationwide to oppose them.[19]

The federal Conservatives proposed remedial legislation to override Manitoba, but they were blocked by the Liberals, led by Wilfrid Laurier, who opposed the remedial legislation because of his belief in provincial rights.[18] The Manitoba Schools issue became an issue in the Canadian federal election of 1896, where it worked against the Conservatives and helped elect the Liberals.[20] As Prime Minister, Laurier implemented a compromise stating that Catholics in Manitoba could have their own religious instruction for 30 minutes at the end of the day if there were enough students to warrant it, implemented on a school-by-school basis.[18]


Winnipeg was the third-largest city in Canada in the early 20th century.[21] This boomtown grew quickly from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. There was a lot of outside investors, immigration, railways, trains, and business was booming.[22] Even today, one can see the many old mansions and estates that belonged to Winnipeg's ever growing wealthy class. When the Manitoba Legislature was built, it was expected that Manitoba would have a population of 3 million quite soon. Just around the time of World War I, the quickly growing city began to cool down as the large amounts of money were no longer invested to the same degree as before the war. Winnipeg eventually fell behind in growth when other major cities in Canada began to boom ahead, such as Calgary today.

Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 21, 1919.
Crowds of Winnipeggers wave at Queen Elizabeth and King George VI

In the 1917 election in the midst of the conscription crisis, the Liberals were split in half and the new Union party carried all but one seat. After World War I ended, severe discontent among farmers (over wheat prices) and union members (over wage rates) resulted in an upsurge of radicalism, coupled with a polarization over the rise of Bolshevism in Russia.[23] The most dramatic episode was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 which shut down most activity for six weeks, starting May 15. The strike collapsed on June 25, 1919, as the workers were gradually returning to their jobs and the Central Strike Committee decided to end the strike.[24] As historian W. L. Morton has explained:

The strike, then, began with two immediate aims and two subsidiary but increasingly important aspects. One aim was the redress of legitimate grievances with respect to wages and collective bargaining; the other was the trial of a new instrument of economic action, the general strike, the purpose of which was to put pressure on the employers involved in the dispute through the general public. The first subsidiary aspect was that the general strike, however, might be a prelude to the seizure of power in the community by Labour, and both the utterances and the policies of the O.B.U. leaders pointed in that direction. The second subsidiary aspect was that, as a struggle for leadership in the Labour movement was being waged as the strike began, it was not made clear which object, the legitimate and limited one, or the revolutionary and general one, was the true purpose of the strike. It is now apparent that the majority of both strikers and strike leaders were concerned only to win the strike. The general public at large, however, subjected to the sudden coercion of the general strike, was only too likely to decide that a revolutionary seizure of power was in view.[25]

In the aftermath, eight leaders went on trial, and most were convicted on charges of seditious conspiracy, illegal combinations, and seditious libel; four were aliens who were deported under the Canadian Immigration Act.[26] Organized labor in Manitoba was weakened and divided as a result.


Meanwhile, the farmers of the province were patiently organizing the United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM), which contested the 1920 provincial legislative elections. The result of the 1920 election was that no party had a majority in the legislature and no government could be formed. New elections were held in 1922 to resolve the crisis. The UFM won decisively, gaining 30 of 57 seats. 7 Liberals, 6 Conservatives, 6 Labourites, and 8 Independents were also returned.

Access to Hudson Bay

Frustration with shipping grain through eastern ports, Manitoba farmers lobbied for their own grain port on Hudson Bay which led the creation of the Hudson Bay Railway which was built in stages north from The Pas after a railway bridge was constructed over the Saskatchewan River in 1910-1911 by the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR). After initial surveys considered both the ports of Churchill and Port Nelson, it was decided to proceed to Port Nelson in 1912. Construction began at Port Nelson and the new Canadian research ship CSS Acadia was sent to chart the port and shipping routes into the Bay. However harbour construction at Port Nelson ran into engineering and costs problems and was abandoned in World War I. Following the CNoR bankruptcy in 1918 and creation of Canadian National Railways (CNR), the federal government undertook to complete the Hudson Bay Railway; this time to Churchill. CSS Acadia was sent to survey for a port and railway construction resumed. Political and financing difficulties as well as engineering challenges due to the large amount of muskeg and frequent rock outcrops on the Canadian Shield delayed the completion of the railway and port but it was completed and opened to shipping in 1929.


The Great Depression (1929–c.1939) hit especially hard in Western Canada, including Manitoba. The collapse of the world market combined with a steep drop in agricultural production due to drought led to economic diversification, moving away from a reliance on wheat production.[27] The Manitoba Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner to the New Democratic Party of Manitoba (NDP), was founded in 1932.[28]

Canada entered World War II in 1939. Winnipeg was one of the major commands for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan to train fighter pilots, and there were air training schools throughout Manitoba. Several Manitoba-based regiments were deployed overseas, including Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. In an effort to raise money for the war effort, the Victory Loan campaign organised "If Day" in 1942. The event featured a simulated Nazi invasion and occupation of Manitoba, and eventually raised over C$65 million.[29]

Since 1945

A concrete and metal structure spans a section of choppy water
Control gates at the inlet to the Floodway

Winnipeg was inundated during the 1950 Red River Flood and had to be partially evacuated. In that year, the Red River reached its highest level since 1861 and flooded most of the Red River Valley. The damage caused by the flood led then-Premier Duff Roblin to advocate for the construction of the Red River Floodway; it was completed in 1968 after six years of excavation. Permanent dikes were erected in eight towns south of Winnipeg, and clay dikes and diversion dams were built in the Winnipeg area. In 1997, the "Flood of the Century" caused over C$400 million in damages in Manitoba, but the floodway prevented Winnipeg from flooding.[30]

The province celebrated in 1970 the centennial of its entry into Confederation. Princess Anne and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, presided over the official celebrations.[31]

In 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to pass the Meech Lake Accord, a series of constitutional amendments to persuade Quebec to endorse the Canada Act 1982. Unanimous support in the legislature was needed to bypass public consultation. Manitoba politician Elijah Harper, a Cree, opposed because he did not believe First Nations had been adequately involved in the Accord's process, and thus the Accord failed.[32]

Manitoba voters are divided along numerous cleavages, such as rural and urban, north and south, British (WASP) and ethnic, and businessmen/ professionals/ farmers/ workers. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has a base among the ethnically diverse and low-income communities of Northern Manitoba and north Winnipeg. The base for the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) is in the wealthier, southern regions of the province and Winnipeg. Wesley argues that the key to success lies in designing moderate platforms that avoid extremes, emphasize progress, and pursue a middle-of-the-road path. Leading politicians including Duff Roblin, Edward Schreyer, and Gary Doer have reached across the social, geographical and cultural divisions in Manitoba to stake their claim to be the "progressive centre" and thereby gain control of the middle ground of Manitoba party politics.[33][34][35]

See also


  1. ^ Ritchie, James A.M; Brown, Frank; Brien, David. The Cultural Transmission of the Spirit of Turtle Mountain: A Centre for Peace and Trade for 10,000 Years. General Assembly and International Scientific Symposium. 2008;16:4–6.
  2. ^ Flynn, Catherine; Syms, E. Leigh. Manitoba's First Farmers. Manitoba History. Spring 1996;(31):n.p.
  3. ^ Neatby, LH. Henry Hudson. In: Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1. University of Toronto/Université Laval; 2000. ISBN 0-8020-3142-0. p. 374–379.
  4. ^ Eames, Aled. Thomas Button. In: Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 1. University of Toronto/Université Laval; 2000. ISBN 0-8020-3142-0. p. 144–145.
  5. ^ Zoltvany, Yves F. Pierre Gaultier De Varennes et De La Vérendrye. In: Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 3. University of Toronto/Université Lava; 2000. ISBN 0-8020-3314-8. p. 246–254.
  6. ^ Simmons, Deidre. Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives. McGill-Queen's University Press; 2007. ISBN 0-7735-3291-9. p. 19–23, 83–85, 115.
  7. ^ Stewart, Lillian. York Factory National Historic Site. Manitoba History. Spring 1988;(15):n.p.
  8. ^ Natural Resources Canada. Manitoba [archived 2008-06-04; Retrieved 2009-10-28].
  9. ^ Gray, John Morgan. Thomas Douglas. In: Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 5. University of Toronto/Université Laval; 2000. ISBN 0-8020-3351-2. p. 264–269.
  10. ^ Martin, Joseph E. The 150th Anniversary of Seven Oaks. MHS Transactions. 1965;3(22):n.p.
  11. ^ "Memorable Manitobans: Thomas Spence (1832-1900)". mhs.mb.ca.
  12. ^ a b Sprague, DN. Canada and the Métis, 1869–1885. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 1988. ISBN 0-88920-964-2. p. 33–67, 89–129.
  13. ^ Cooke, OA. Garnet Joseph Wolseley. In: Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Online ed. Vol. 14. University of Toronto/Université Laval; 2000 [Retrieved 2010-01-30]. ISBN 0-8020-3998-7.
  14. ^ a b Kemp, Douglas. From Postage Stamp to Keystone. Manitoba Pageant. April 1956:n.p.
  15. ^ Manitoba Act, 1870, The Solon Law Archive
  16. ^ Tough, Frank. As Their Natural Resources Fail: Native People and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870–1930. UBC Press; 1997. ISBN 0-7748-0571-4. p. 75–79.
  17. ^ Government of Manitoba. First Nations Land Claims [archived 2009-10-30; Retrieved 2009-10-28].
  18. ^ a b c Fletcher, Robert. The Language Problem in Manitoba's Schools. MHS Transactions. 1949;3(6):n.p.
  19. ^ McLauchlin, Kenneth. "Riding The Protestant Horse": The Manitoba School Question and Canadian Politics, 1890–1896. Historical Studies. 1986;53:39–52.
  20. ^ Paul Crunican, Priests and Politicians: Manitoba Schools and the Election of 1896 (1975)
  21. ^ Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of Canada. D&M Adult; 2006. ISBN 1-55365-077-8. p. 227.
  22. ^ CBC. Winnipeg Boomtown [Retrieved 2009-10-28].
  23. ^ Conway, John Frederick. The West: The History of a Region in Confederation. 3 ed. Lorimer; 2005. ISBN 1-55028-905-5. p. 63–64, 85–100.
  24. ^ Bercuson, David J. Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. McGill-Queen's University Press; 1990. ISBN 0-7735-0794-9. p. 173–176.
  25. ^ Morton, History of Manitoba 365-6
  26. ^ Lederman, Peter R. Sedition in Winnipeg: An Examination of the Trials for Seditious Conspiracy Arising from the General Strike of 1919. Queen's Law Journal. 1976;3(2):5, 14–17.
  27. ^ Easterbrook, William Thomas; Aitken, Hugh GJ. Canadian economic history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1988 [Retrieved 2009-11-07]. p. 493–494.
  28. ^ Wiseman, Nelson. Social democracy in Manitoba. University of Manitoba; 1983. ISBN 978-0-88755-118-5. p. 13.
  29. ^ Newman, Michael. February 19, 1942: If Day. Manitoba History. Spring 1987;(13):n.p.
  30. ^ Haque, C Emdad. Risk Assessment, Emergency Preparedness and Response to Hazards: The Case of the 1997 Red River Valley Flood, Canada. Natural Hazards. May 2000;21(2):226–237. doi:10.1023/a:1008108208545.
  31. ^ Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba. "History > Government House > The Royal Bedroom". Queen's Printer for Manitoba. Archived from the original on 2008-11-18. Retrieved 2 July 2009.
  32. ^ Hawkes, David C; Devine, Marina. Meech Lake and Elijah Harper: Native-State Relations in the 1990s. In: Frances Abele. How Ottawa Spends, 1991–1992: The Politics of Fragmentation. McGill-Queen's University Press; 1991. ISBN 0-88629-146-1. p. 33–45.
  33. ^ Wesley Jared J (2011). "Staking the Progressive Centre: An Ideational Analysis of Manitoba Party Politics". Journal of Canadian Studies. 45 (1): 144–177. doi:10.3138/jcs.45.1.143.
  34. ^ Wesley Jared J (2009). "In Search of Brokerage and Responsibility: Party Politics in Manitoba". Canadian Journal of Political Science. 42 (1): 211–36. doi:10.1017/s0008423909090088.
  35. ^ Jared J. Wesley, "Political Culture in Manitoba" in Manitoba Politics and Government: Issues, Institutions, Traditions, ed. P.G. Thomas and C. Brown. (University of Manitoba Press, 2010)